MONTREAL, QC - AUGUST 07: Nick Kyrgios of Australia (L) and Viktor Troicki of Serbia & Montenegro (R) have a laugh with chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani of Sweden during day four of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at Uniprix Stadium on August 7, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Michael Steinberger: 'It's Time We Just Let Kyrgios Be Kyrgios'

Last year, I wrote a profile of Nick Kyrgios for The New York Times Magazine’s annual US Open issue. Kyrgios headlined the night session on the middle Saturday of the Open, so I took my two kids to see the guy who had kept their dad preoccupied for much of the summer. James and Ava got the full Kyrgios Experience. They saw the phenomenal racket head speed and control that had led their dad to call Kyrgios the most naturally gifted player to come along since Roger Federer. They saw the Australian’s showman instincts, like the point in the first set when he decided to play cat-and-mouse with his opponent, trading extravagantly slow backhand slices before a laughing Kyrgios finally ripped a winner. And they saw the maddening side of Kyrgios—down two sets to one, he retired with a hip injury, a deflating end to a night that initially had the air of a coronation about it.

It’s a year later, Kyrgios is a year older, and he is still giving us whiplash. Last week in Washington, he left fans fuming when he retired from his opening match claiming a shoulder injury. It was the third consecutive tournament in which he retired (prior to Washington, he quit his first-round matches at both Wimbledon and at Queens; in those cases, he said his hip was giving problems again). But he also spent several days charming the hell out of fans while on the practice court in Washington—cracking jokes, bringing some kids out to hit with him, etc. And he’s also had a few moments of brilliance this year. He made a run to the quarterfinals in Indian Wells, thrashing Sascha Zverev en route, and then reached the semis in Miami, where he and Federer played an electrifying match—the match of the year to this point. Who knows what Federer and Kyrgios might have cooked up in Indian Wells: as you may recall, Federer was the opponent awaiting Kyrgios in the quarters, but Kyrgios withdrew from the match on account of food poisoning, which he blamed on a bad smoothie. There’s a reality show waiting to be born here.

Yet, apart from the strong performances in Indian Wells and Miami, this has been a pretty disappointing year for Kyrgios. Last year at this time, he had won two tournaments and was 16th in the world; he later won Tokyo during the tour’s Asia swing. By contrast, he has yet to reach a final this year, and he’s now outside the top 20 (24th, to be exact). He has been especially disappointing at the majors. In addition to the retirement at Wimbledon, he lost in the second round of the Australian, blowing a two set to none lead to the Italian Andreas Seppi, and lost in the second round at the French. I don’t know if he is regressing, per se, but he is not progressing, and as Kyrgios goes on being Kyrgios, his next-gen brethren are moving ahead. Zverev has won four tournaments this year and is now in the top 10. Dominic Thiem cracked the top 10 last season, is now seventh in the world, and also reached his first grand slam semifinal this year, at the French. It’s back-to-school season, and in the spirit of the season, let me offer a slightly strained analogy: Zverev and Thiem are the kids heading off to college, Kyrgios is the classmate who isn’t.

It was a point underscored last night in Montreal, where Zverev beat Kyrgios in straight sets to claim his first win over the Australian. Yes, Kyrgios was complaining about his hip again—at least he finished the match this time—but it was a study in diverging careers. There has always been a lot of skepticism about Kyrgios—not about his talent, but about his desire and dedication. The doubts are only growing, and if he doesn’t take a significant step forward in the next year or so—going deep at a slam, reaching the top 10, something—I suspect a lot of people are going to write him off. Many already have.

I wonder now if that Federer match in Miami, which Federer won in a third-set tiebreaker (the other two sets also went to tiebreakers) had the opposite effect we assumed it would have. It was the first time in a long time that Kyrgios completely threw himself into a match, where he truly—forgive the cliché—left it all on the court. He played brilliantly and came within two points of winning (he went up 5-4 in the third set tiebreaker and had two serves to close it out). I hoped—everyone hoped—that the match would prove to be a springboard for Kyrgios; that he’d take encouragement from it and continue to play at that level for the rest of the year. That hasn’t happened, and while Kyrgios has had injuries, it seems possible that he left Miami not encouraged but, rather, dejected. He’s a crowd pleaser, and also a more sensitive soul than his chill persona might suggest, and the hostility he faced that night from the fans—not because they necessarily disliked him, but because they were fanatically pro-Federer—may have left a wound. Kyrgios had finally played the kind of match everyone had been imploring him to play—focused, engaged, totally committed from first ball to last—and instead of approbation, he faced a chorus of catcalls and hisses. He gave them what they wanted, and they gave him crap in return. Obviously, I can’t see into the guy’s head, but it’s easy to imagine that the takeaway for him was, “Why bother?” At any rate, what appeared to be a coming-of-age moment turned out to be an aberration.

All that said, I’m not writing this to dump on Kyrgios, but rather, to defend him. Sure, there are things he does that can’t be defended. If he is going to show up at a tournament—and I’m thinking specifically of the controversy in Shanghai last fall—he has an obligation to make his best effort. Beyond that, however, he doesn’t owe us a thing. It is his talent, and he can do with it what he wishes. If he is content with his place in tennis, if he doesn’t aspire to more or want to put in the effort required to go any further, that’s his business. Ability and desire are not always in sync, life is full of complications, particularly when you are in your early twenties, and if tennis can’t sustain Kyrgios’s interest long enough to allow his talent to be fully realized, or if he looks at the pressures and demands on guys like Federer and Nadal and thinks to himself, “Not for me, bro”—well, that’s okay. It might not be the choice you or I would make, but it’s not our choice to make; it’s his.

And in the meantime, when he’s not pissing off fans, he’s entertaining them, which in itself is a service to the sport. You probably heard about the invite that he extended to one of his Twitter followers to hit with him in Montreal. Kyrgios, of course, made good on the offer. Did you see him playing Butts Up on the practice court the other day? If not, have a look and a laugh:

I suppose some people might see these antics as unseemly, and as proof that he lacks seriousness of purpose. That’s one interpretation. Another is that he is a jocular kid who, in mixing it up with fans as he does, is making tennis a little more accessible, a little more fun. He’s especially good with children, who quickly detect a kindred spirit, Kyrgios is the Pied Piper of tennis, and I think he’s great for the game. I still hold out hope that he’ll put it all together for at least one glorious stretch. Certainly, with that serve and those hands, it will be a crime against nature if he never wins Wimbledon. But whatever he gives us, tennis is better for having him, and it’s time we all just let Kyrgios be Kyrgios.

Read more articles by Michael Steinberger

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